Regional | Māori

Māori nurses honoured for the first time at medal ceremony for the 28th Māori battalion

Whānau in Northland have received war medals for their close family members who served in major world conflicts.

Medals belonging to 75 Māori veterans from World War I, World War II, and the Korean War were returned to their respective families at Waitangi. Notably, the event included the presentation of the first mana wahine Māori nurse medal to the descendants of Mary Claudine Cairns.

Mary Claudine Cairns, service number 811278, served in World War II. She didn’t serve overseas but did train army nurses in Papakura and received two medals for her work: the War Medal 1939–45 and the NZ War Service Medal.

Daughter Rhonda Lepper was on hand to receive the medals.

“She was the matron of the hostels, I believe. She looked after the girls, making sure they didn’t sneak out and in at night and I also do believe that she was training them.”

Third moving ceremony

She says it was an incredibly moving day for all whānau.

“Every whānau that’s had medals coming to them should be very proud of them.”

The ceremony is the third such ceremony where unclaimed medals of Māori soldiers were presented. Previous ceremonies have been held in Rotorua and on the East Coast. Māori lawyer David Stone has embarked on a remarkable journey to reunite families with long-lost and unclaimed war medals, a mission that holds deep historical and emotional significance.

“We helped give about 80 whānau an incredible gift to their loved ones, whether it be their grandfather or their uncle, whatever the case may be. They got given a beautiful gift today.”

Stone says Mary Cairns is only the tip of the iceberg for Māori nurses.

‘A significant day’

“I know, as a percentage, it will be much higher than the men. Because I happened to speak to someone who was a medal expert, and he said to me, he doesn’t think any of them got their medals.”

Presenting medals to the whānau of Māori Battalion soldiers who fought in World War II is a chance to recognise the mana they brought to themselves and New Zealand, says Chief of Army Major-General John Boswell.

Major General Boswell participated in the presentation of 78 sets of medals to whānau in recognition of the service and sacrifice of soldiers and officers of the 28 (Maori) Battalion at a ceremony at Te Whare Rūnanga, the wharenui on Waitangi Treaty Grounds, on Saturday.

“This is a significant day to honour the service and sacrifice of those soldiers from 28th Māori Battalion all those years ago,” he said.

“It’s also an opportunity to recognise the mana they brought to themselves, to their families, the New Zealand Army and New Zealand.”

Colonel Trevor Walker has been responsible for coordinating ceremonies on behalf of the New Zealand Army in Waitangi, Hawke’s Bay, Gisborne, Christchurch, Trentham and Rotorua.

Each ceremony was subtly different, he said.

‘Incredibly rewarding’

“It has been an absolute privilege to have been a part of this kaupapa, and that feeling of privilege is shared by all those in the team that brought this together.

“The ceremony at Waitangi brought us to the ‘home’ of A Company and the emotion and wairua displayed today reflect the deep, spiritual meaning these medals have to whānau.

“It is incredibly rewarding to be a small part of making this right and getting medals to those who deserve them.”

Government policy after World War II was that former service personnel would have to apply for their medals, which would then be sent to them through the post.

This was to avoid the problems experienced after World War I when about 10 percent of medals posted to ex-service personnel or their families were returned because of out-of-date address information.

500 sets never claimed

For a variety of reasons, many World War II veterans did not claim their medals.

The New Zealand Defence Force (NZDF) personnel archives and medals unit worked with David Stone, from Te Mata Law, regarding the unclaimed medals of 28 (Maori) Battalion.

They identified approximately 500 sets of medals that were never claimed by former battalion personnel.

“The team from NZDF archives are the unsung heroes of this kaupapa. They reviewed thousands of files to determine who had received medals and who were yet to claim,” Walker said.

The families of the men who never claimed their medals are entitled to apply for them through the NZDF Personnel Archives and Medals Office.